Editorial: Everything is Political (Why we killed Publish and Be Damned) – Three Letter Words, September 2015

Everything is Political (Why we killed Publish and Be Damned)


Neal Fox, Robert Greene, Bill Bragg, Le Gun, London, 2004, no. 1. For more images visit the PABD Public Library

In response to some questions they’ve been fielding, Three Letter Words talk to… Three Letter Words about self-publishing and why they love the vanity press.

Isn’t interviewing yourself a bit self-indulgent?

Perhaps – we don’t want this to read like the blog of an arts organisation just spouting the party line. We’d normally prefer to ask other writers to reflect critically on other publising projects.

So Three Letter Words are reticent about self-publishing?

Clearly not. But it is interesting that you mention an embarrassment around self-publishing. We are interested in thinking about constraints and self-censorship, and the moralising judgments that are often made regarding the place of identity within particular critical and artistic gestures

The discourse on self-publishing in terms of artistic practice, particularly artist’s books, often focuses on celebrating the idiosyncratic product that can emerge when the artist considers every aspect of the form of their published matter – cover to spine, and distribution method. We’ve recently become more interested in the more uncomfortable, or unclear, position of the self-publisher – in the ‘vanity press’ perhaps.


In an attempt to define the vanity press from self-published books Nick Thurston once suggested that we could identify the  ‘vanity press’ by the way that it mimicked the structures and behaviours of ‘mainstream’ publishing.1  But how useful are these kinds of dichotomies of inside and outside?  Perhaps subverting, manipulating or simply just utilising existing popular structures, forms and channels doesn’t have to imply conforming. What can mimicking achieve? What if we embraced the vanity press?

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Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Chong Chon Gang, 2014

A discussion of ‘art publishing’ for us is not just about individuals making bespoke books, but rather intends to encompass various modes of circulating image and text: free papers, piggy-backing, advertising – billboard projects, playing with Instagram and Facebook… as well as perhaps more intimate forms of gathering readerships and audiences – spoken word, performances, mail art….

We loved Ana Teixeira Pinto’s recent e-flux call for a (re-)politicisation of the internet in relation to the Indiegogo Greek bailout fund. It was a wonderfully ironic proposal – the idea that a crowdfunding platform – one of those parasites that feeds on a lack of public funding and encourages an ethos towards entrepreneurship in the arts – could be flipped in use.2 Of course it didn’t work – it was in vain – but it was a great publishing gesture.

Why did you kill Publish and Be Damned?3

Publish and Be Damned was already dead.

It made no sense to celebrate the hobbyist as a mode of working at a time when public arts funding was being slashed.

Over the years Publish and be Damned had adopted and become defined by various limiting descriptions – a ‘self-publishers fair’, focusing on ‘publishing outside the mainstream’. We continued to use these terms as a shorthand for the discussions we were interested in having, and because of the history of more oppositional art (and other) publishing that they evoked. But we felt frustrated and limited by them.

We weren’t entirely sure what the ‘mainstream’ was anymore, or at least what it was to believe we or anyone could be really outside it,4 and for us ‘artists self-publishing’ could be too easily co-opted to promote the idea of individual genius artists creating limited edition works, rather than the political potential of collective practice that we value in publishing as practice – as evidenced by a look through the various magazine projects in the Publish and be Damned Public Library.

Will you throw another fair soon?

It was fun to throw our launch party and fair last November, and we hoped our commissions – Camilla Wills’ billboard project and the performances – would signal our interest in pushing an expanded idea of what publishing, making publics, means.

In terms of the fair aspect we wanted to position small-scale practices in context – alongside slightly larger publicly funded publishers, and organisations who engage with more extensive edited longer-form critical theory and criticism. We also chucked in some old counter cultural material for a bit of historical context; and we included a number of independent bookshops who brought in their own selections of books by small-scale publishers, further widening the range of material and different subjectivities on offer to visitors.


Facsimile of the first PABD catalogue, Behind the X, 2014

But will you do another fair?

Never say never. But at the moment we want to focus our energies on fundraising for upcoming projects that we feel more urgently address the problems of distribution today. We are also a bit cynical about how genuinely useful a lot of the current fairs are for those participating; as well as the motivations behind the boom in institutional programming of these kinds of fairs – something that seems less concerned about building new appetites and a broader understanding of what art can do and be, than enjoying the benefits of an appearance of countercultural criticality and the footfall they bring.5

It’s interesting that London still hasn’t managed to achieve audiences for art publishing on the scale of the Printed Matter New York Art Book Fair – who’ve made it – almost – financially worthwhile for publishers to travel to participate in a fair, and create an event where visitors get to access a breadth of publishing and meet publishers that they might not usually encounter in their locality.

What’s coming up?

We are developing plans for an online resource and distribution platform for art publishers that doesn’t cut out independent bookshops but instead aims to support those that stock and share as well as those that make. We want to use existing technology to do something amazing. Read more here.

Who do you work with?

We work with and for art publishers and art publishing. We believe in publishing as a collaborative activity.  We are interested in artists as publishers, curators as publishers, editors as artists, writers as artists, writing by artists, art writers, musicians as typographers, artists as editors, and librarians and booksellers too…

Our politics are left-wing: feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial/imperial. We apply these politics to who we commission and who we accept money from. We believe it’s meaningless to claim you are ‘political’ and then evade describing what those politics actually are.

Is this emphasis on funding just boring institutional critique?

A discussion of art publishing needs to address practicalities – the motivations behind what gets distributed, shared and supported, and what does not. How does who funds us inflect the meaning of what we do? How do we continue to produce meaningful projects that circulate, and stage events where people can gather and distribute in a time of rising rents and government austerity?

As an organisation run by women living in London, some of us with very [very] young families, we can’t ignore the question of who gets to make and how. How do we enable different subjectivities to engage with both making and experiencing art? Why is it always successful middle-aged white male artists and curators who turn up late, don’t collect their own books, and rant at us for asking them to contribute a little something so we can afford to throw a fair in an independent venue?6

Publish and Be Damned!7

Three Letter Words: Louise O’Hare, Kate Phillimore, 12 September 2015

[1] This isn’t such a fair summary of what Nick was saying, which was part of a wider conversation we’ve taken out of context. I am sure he would agree that when the strategies of what might have been ‘outside’ have so very long been co-opted by wider markets and conservative forces (from punk aesthetics to ‘guerilla’ marketing campaigns to street art) it’s wise to be quite critical of any sweeping generalisations about what is and isn’t ‘mainstream’ in terms of form. Plus he loves a bit of piracy.
He said: ‘At iam [Information As Material] we try to unfold one specific sense of ‘self-publishing’, seeing it as a kind of cultural production other than vanity publishing. […] In the kind of self-publishing that our organisations support, the ‘self’ is put at stake through work and the self takes responsibility for engaging in a different kind of work from that done by and for mainstream publishers. This self takes responsibility for working to produce a different kind of publishable text and a different culture of publication, and it does so from outside the mainstream as a positive choice.’ – N. Thurston, ‘Artists at Work’, Afterall Online, 22 August 2012, available at http://afterall.org/online/7239
[2] Perhaps worth noting that had they succeeded, Indiegogo (the crowd funding platform) would have received 5% of the €1.6 billion raised to bailout Greece –  €8 million. To read Ana Teixeira Pinto’s call for support see e-flux: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/crowdfunding-greece/
[3] Publish and be Damned (PABD) was an independent publishing fair in London first curated by Kit Hammonds and Emily Pethick and run by various organisers from 2004–2013. Over the years the fair provided a free platform for a wide range of small scale artistic practices, and was often described as a ‘self-publishers’ fair. In 2014 the current organisers, Hammonds, Louise O’Hare and Kate Phillimore declared the fair dead, with Hammonds setting up the Vernacular Institute and co-founding Index Mexico, and O’Hare and Phillimore launching Three Letter Words.
The PABD Public Library – over 1000 publications donated by those who participated in the various fairs over the years is in the care of Three Letter Words who are now working to increase access to the material, and digitise it. For more on the library and PABD see http://threeletterwords.org/about-the-archive/
[4] Following Matthew Stadler. See ‘What is Publication’, abridged footage of keynote at Richard Hugo House’s writer’s conference, ‘Finding Your Audience in the 21st Century’, 22 May 2010, available at https://vimeo.com/14888791
[5]…which translates into audience figures that, in the UK at least, help their Arts Council applications. See Louise O’Hare on ‘Why there has been such a boom in art book fairs’: http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/why-has-there-been-such-a-boom-in-art-book-fairs/948
[6] We received Arts Council funding for the fair and commissions that launched Three Letter Words, but only by telling them we would get ‘match funding’ from elsewhere. Our match funding fell through, but we still wanted to make it happen, so we did this by giving up our organisers fee and asking publishers who could afford it for a ‘voluntary’ contribution of £40 towards costs of the fair. We thought if we could get publishers who could afford it to pay something (ICA curators and artists represented by Victoria Miro perhaps?) this would be a good way for them to support less established artists and publishers. We got friendly generous responses from tiny publishers who we knew could barely afford it… and told them we didn’t mean them. All the indignant, angry shouty replies were from the big boyz.
[7] This text has had a few lives. A first draft was circulated by email among friends as a response to a blog on the ICA website in which the charming Dan Mitchell called us ‘neo-liberal’ to promote the artist’s book fair he set up with Sara MacKillop. We won’t link to the original offending article here as we don’t want to promote such nonsense, but it was called ‘Self-publishing is political’ and was probably best described by our dear friend Gavin Everall as: ‘marred by ill-thought through provocations, against things that both the organisers have benefited from […] the worst sort of gesture politics. […] ASP does need to recognise that the past is over, and lessons need to be learned regarding the fluidity of form, and agency, (artists can be anything, including manicurists) and importantly the idiocy of claiming a political space whilst making the same kinds of compromises it scorns in others.’ Thanks love xxoxox